Discuss how Senghor depicts the past, present, and future in his poem. How does the present relate to the traditional African past? What role will the tradition play in the future of Africa?
Senghor's poem draws strongly on a patriarchal myth that evokes his father's name and the masculine totemic animal of the lion, while excluding women from this sacred "ground" protected by the lion-mask. Yet he also uses feminine imagery of the "dying princess" of traditional Africa and the umbilical cord attaching Africa to the colonial "mother" of Europe. How does "Prayer to the Masks" relate gender to his vision of the Africa of the past, present, and future? How do you think the poem might have differed if it had been written by an African woman?
Senghor was a central participant in the "Negritude" movement, a literary and cultural movement that asserted pride in being black and in the traditions of Africa and of the African peoples brought to the Americas as slaves. Other important participants included the Martiniquean poet Aimé Césaire and the Guyanese poet Léon Gontran Damas. In what ways might the idea of Africa and African roots be different for Senghor, who grew up in a small village in Senegal, and the "New World" Negritude poets, who had never been to Africa when they began writing?
Senghor was educated in French schools and universities, and he wrote in French. Yet he also uses French, the language of the colonizer, to criticize colonialism and to assert the value of African traditions, history, and beliefs. What sorts of problems do you think his literary use of French might have posed for Senghor in writing his poems? What did he gain by writing in French? Would it have been better for him to have written his poetry in Serer, his native language? What does Senghor bring to French literature and language from an African perspective? How does Senghor's use of the French language relate to his vision of future relations between Africa and Europe?
Senghor puts at the center of his work a form of African art and spirituality, the mask. Find another poem that takes off from a work of art and compare how it functions in that work with the role of the masks in Senghor's poem.
The African-American scholar and writer W. E. B. Du Bois argued that being both a highly educated American citizen and a man subject to American racial prejudice caused him to possess a "double consciousness" typical of the experience of blacks in America. He was compelled to think of himself both as a legally equal citizen of the United States and as a socially stigmatized black man, to live his life as a man aware of his superior education and accomplishments and as a man viewed by many of his fellow citizens as inferior because of his race. In what ways does Senghor's poem, which negotiates a relation between his pride in his "negritude," his aspirations for African independence, and his French education, exhibit a similar "double consciousness"? How do the particular circumstances of Africa and French colonialism differ from the American racism and legacy of slavery to which Du Bois was responding?